Trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, known for 'beautiful sound,' dies at home

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WEST STOCKBRIDGE >> Trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, one of the youngest musicians ever hired by the Boston Symphony and co-founder of the famed Empire Brass, died suddenly at his longtime home in West Stockbridge on Monday. He was 62.

According to his manager, Mark Z. Alpert of Columbia Artists Management in New York City, Smedvig suffered an apparent heart attack, but had not been in poor health recently.

Smedvig, whose family roots were Scandinavian, grew up in Seattle. His mother was a violinist in the Seattle Symphony, and his father was a composer and music teacher.

The youngster had a meteoric rise and was considered a prodigy, his official biography stated. He was only 13 when he performed as a soloist with the Seattle Symphony. He studied at Boston University and with well-known trumpeter Maurice Andre.

As a student at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1971, Smedvig was chosen by Leonard Bernstein as a soloist for the world premiere of his Mass, composed to inaugurate the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

He was hired in 1972 by the Boston Symphony as the orchestra's youngest musician at age 19. By the time he was 25. he was appointed by BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa as principal trumpet.

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"He was one of the most beautiful, lyrical musicians I've ever heard on a brass instrument," said Ronald Feldman, music director of the Berkshire Symphony and artist-in-residence at Williams College.

"Rolf had wonderful, fantastic, rock-solid technique, beautiful sound," he added. "Rolf was an almost note-perfect player, which is very difficult for a brass musician."

Feldman recalled as an "other-worldly experience" hearing Smedvig perform the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the Boston Pops in the 1990s. "It's a memory of a musical experience I hold very dear."

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A cellist with the Boston Symphony from 1967 to 2001, Feldman was also 19 when he was hired by the orchestra. Smedvig's predecessor as principal BSO trumpet, Roger Voisin, had been 17 when he was hired in 1935.

Seeking a solo and chamber music career in the spotlight, Smedvig had co-founded the Empire Brass Quintet, as it was first known, the year before he joined the BSO. He left the orchestra in 1981 to focus on the group and on solo engagements, commissioning arrangements of music ranging from pre-Baroque classical to Broadway, Dixieland jazz, Celtic and Christmas favorites. Empire Brass toured nationally and performed in 35 countries overseas.

At its height from the 1970s through the 1990s, the five-member group, which maintained a long-term residency at Boston University, was performing about 100 concerts annually, along with TV appearances on NBC's "Today" and PBS's "Mister Roger's Neighborhood." An extensive catalogue of recordings for Telarc, Angel EMI and other labels grew to more than 60 albums.

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During the 1990s, Smedvig performed as a soloist with the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., the NHK Orchestra of Japan (conducted by Ozawa) and the Cambridge Chamber Orchestra, according to his biography on the Empire Brass website. The quintet performed with numerous American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic.

He taught at the Tanglewood Music Center for many years, where he founded the Empire Brass Seminar, and also gave master classes at Boston University.

Locally, Empire Brass performed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002. In September 2006, Smedvig organized a three-day "Berkshire Brass Spectacular" at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield. The following month, he performed with the Berkshire Symphony, the Williamstown-based orchestra of professional and student musicians led by Feldman.

In a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he described his approach to trumpet playing as "definitely American, which is the best in the world. It's a very open, warm, projecting sound that has various tone colors, not just a loud, brassy sound that many foreign players tend to have."

As a conductor, Smedvig served as music director of the Williamsport (Pa.) Symphony. He has guest-conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich, the Honolulu Symphony, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Caracas, Venezuela.

A memorial service with a musical tribute is planned at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox on Saturday, May 9, at 11 a.m. Smedvig is survived by his second wife, Kelly, a musician and art teacher at Richmond Consolidated School, and their four children — twins Soren and Soffia, as well as Annika and Aurora.


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